'It's like who am I and why am I here?' 'Beating My Heart'
A great deal has happened to Jon McLaughlin between the release of his debut Island Records album INDIANA last year, and his new, sophomore effort, OK NOW.
When we last saw him, the 25-year-old singer/songwriter was giving a show-stopping performance of the Oscar-nominated 'So Close,' the song he sang in the hit Disney movie Enchanted, on the worldwide telecast of the 80th Annual Academy Awards ceremony.
The appearance re-ignited INDIANA, spurring a 1,514% overnight sales increase at Amazon, sending it to the #1 spot on its Movers & Shakers chart, and creating solid momentum for his latest release. The single from INDIANA, 'Beautiful Disaster' attracted over 420,000 digital fans when featured as Download of The Week.
And after getting major touring slots with Sara Bareilles, Paolo Nutini and Kelly Clarkson, along with dates with Colbie Caillat, Duffy and One Republic under his belt, Jon McLaughlin hit his stride on the road.
Flushed with that success, McLaughlin entered an L.A. recording studio last year intent on undergoing both a musical and stylistic transformation. The heartland piano player expanded his palette by working with new producer John Fields (Rooney, Jonas Brothers, Lifehouse, Switchfoot), co-writing with the likes of Jason Reeves (Colbie Callait's 'Bubbly') as well as writer/producers Tricky and The-Dream (Rihanna's 'Umbrella'), Troy Verges (Kenny Chesney's 'You Save Me') and Brett James (Carrie Underwood's 'Jesus, Take The Wheel').
McLaughlin admits the experience of appearing in Enchanted and performing on the Oscar telecast was a career-defining moment.
'The whole thing has taken on a life of its own,' he says. 'I wasn't even supposed to be in the movie. I love Disney ballads, but I didn't necessarily connect it to what I do as an artist. But that image of an old-school crooner inspired me. I was able to see myself as something different, which helped me open up to try new things on this album. I wasn't afraid to try on some new looks, either.'
Jon describes himself as a 'child of the '80s' in talking about the musical direction of OK NOW, with the very first single 'Beating My Heart' the perfect example, an introspective, existential tune about nothing less than the meaning of life, with an elaborate pop-rock production that evokes Coldplay, thanks to soaring synths and a crackling backbeat.
With producer Fields playing bass, drums, slide guitar and a variety of other instruments, McLaughlin also enlisted the talents of ace players such as guitarists Tim Pierce and David Ryan Harris, as well as drummer Dorian Crozier in the studio.
'Smack Into You,' written and produced by Grammy winners Tricky and The-Dream, is about falling head over heels in love, a combination of the Police's 'Every Breath You Take' and U2's 'With Or Without You,' melding acoustic guitar and McLaughlin's piano to create a passionate undertow. 'This song has such a great groove and is so fun to play live,' says Jon. 'It creates such a special moment in the room.'
Jon describes 'You Can Never Go Back,' which he co-wrote with acclaimed L.A. singer/songwriter Bleu, as his attempt to write a 'late-'70s, early-'80s Billy Joel song,' an admonition to not dwell on the past that evokes the blue-eyed soul of the Bee Gees crossed with Hall and Oates, buttressed by Fields' George Harrison-like slide guitar riffs.
McLaughlin's soul/R&B croon also characterizes 'Things That You Say,' a bittersweet song about 'loneliness, the isolation you feel when you're trying to connect with anybody, but end up with these shallow, going-through-the-motions relationships instead.'
Synthesizers introduce 'You Are the One I Love,' a song Jon co-wrote with Jason Reeves, inspired by the tabloid reports about Amy Winehouse's stormy relationship with her husband Blake that shows an empathy to the beleaguered pair. The multi-layered production is driven home by Peter Gabriel-like tribal drum rhythms.
'I feel for them,' McLaughlin admits. 'Who's to say any of our relationships are any less dysfunctional? I think it's cool that they're so madly in love.'
'The Middle' is about being able to take the Hoosier kid out of Indiana, but not being able to take Indiana out of the Hoosier. The youngster who grew up in a conservative Midwestern household admits home is where his heart still remains: 'Let me tell you now where I went wrong/Hollywood is just another place/I don't belong.'
'Four Years' is another Billy Joel-style, tongue-in-cheek take on a '50s rocker about high school peer pressure that advises freshmen not to worry about the dictates of fashion.
'You just spend so much time worrying about stupid stuff that just doesn't matter,' says McLaughlin, who insists his own high school years were pretty good. 'I wish I could get back all the money I spent on Abercrombie and Fitch back then. If I heard this song when I was still in high school, I still don't think it would change anything. You can't change high school kids' minds about these things...but I'm still going to try.'
'We All Need Saving,' a song about the importance of friendship, starts with a stack of Beach Boys-styled street corner doo-wop oooh-oooh harmonies McLaughlin recorded late one night on Garageband.com, which gives the song its sacred feel, while 'Throw My Love Around' counsels that, with only one life left to live, it's preferable to take risks then end up having regrets.
That same spirit of taking chances informed the making of OK NOW.
'My philosophy has changed,' nods McLaughlin. 'Now I believe you should get crazy in the studio, explore different sounds, and I love the challenge of recreating the songs in the live setting -that's the best part."
OK NOW is OK to go.